The Anthropology of Islam

By Gabriele Marranci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Islam: Beliefs, History and Rituals

WHAT IS ISLAM?

I knew very little about Islam. As a student at the University of Bologna, I discovered my interest in studying cultural phenomena, and among these, religion intrigued me the most. Since my childhood, I had found 'exotic' religions interesting. In my childish mental cinema, Islam projected fantasies of minarets, the Thousand and One Nights, Crusaders and Saladins, my colonialist – he fought in Libya – grandfather's stories, and the mysterious garage-mosque in Florence. Beyond fantasies and conspiracies, Abd al-Kader's face, accent and mannerisms made Islam a flesh and bone presence. Abd al-Kader, a Berber door-to-door salesman, used to knock on our door each month or so. As soon as my mother opened the door, he greeted us with his thirty-two-teeth salām1 smile hoping, as usual, that my mother would buy his colourful children's socks. Month after month, Abd al-Kader became a known, and sometimes expected visitor. Soon, the bargains did not take place on the doorstep, but rather in front of coffee, which my mother had prepared for the occasion. Not only was Abd al-Kader a master of bargaining, but also of hypnotic storytelling.

During the winter, when the rain showered outside, he liked spending some time in our kitchen, and entertained us with bright descriptions of his faraway home. Abd al-Kader knew that his stories sold more than his merchandise, and he also knew the effect that his arabesque narration had on my imagination. One day, after he had finished his socks and tablecloths, and probably spent more time with us than he realized, a bip-bip-bip alarm sound abruptly ended the flow of his narratives. At this sound, Abd al-Kader checked his watch and shyly asked my mother, 'May I pray to my God in your home?' She, who has always been curious about religion and tested a good number of them, invited him into the living room. I was very curious and asked if I could stay in the room. Abd al-Kader smiled and showed me how to find the direction for the Muslim prayer; then opened his sports bag, in which he kept his merchandise, and a prayer mat materialized with its colourful design of a black cube in the middle of a mosque building. Abd al-Kader pointed to the cube and told me, 'This is the centre of the universe; this is the Ka'ba, the house of Allah, God'. Then, he stepped, without shoes, onto the prayer mat, raised his hands to his ears and exclaimed 'Allāhu Akbar' and recited the Qur'an. An unknown melody filled our living room. To be honest, the prayer in itself appeared to me, a young curious

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